We had our annual pre-CEDIA company meeting in Denver in early September. Actually, it was the shortest company meeting on record. We finished just before 12:30 and broke for lunch. Except my boss said, "I want to have us grab some beer and some wine, go up in the mountains and just hang out this afternoon." God, I like working for this company.
The only problem is that it's monsoon season in early September in the Colorado Rockies. Rising heat mixing with the cool air over the mountains creates clouds which, in turn, create rain showers - and some of them can be pretty heavy. As we started out toward Estes Park, it became very evident that the weather was not going to cooperate. So we ended up stopping in Boulder and looking for a place to eat.
Now, I hadn't been in Boulder since 1979. I remember some of the city, but it was still sort of a new experience for me. Downtown Boulder is really nice. There's a lot of shops and restaurants in the area. The Pearl Street walking mall is very nice. We were walking along and one of the guys pointed out a place called B.J.'s Brewhouse. "Food and beer," he said. "Looks like a winning combination for lunch."
The BJ's Brewhouse in Boulder (see map) is a long narrow place with tables up front, booths along the wall toward the back and a long bar that looks into the beer vats behind a large glass window. It was about 2 p.m. when we were in there, so we were able to get a big combo booth in the back of the place for our group.
I didn't realize until I did some background research on BJ's Brewhouse that the restaurant was part of a chain under the Chicago Pizza and Brewery Inc. umbrella. The background of the company is rather interesting.
In 1978, two men - Bill Cunningham and Michael Phillips - owned a Burger King franchise in Southern California. Wanting to expand their franchise empire with Burger King, they were halted by the company who decreed that franchisees couldn't own multiple locations.
Cunningham and Phillips then looked toward owning a pizza restaurant. But not the typical Southern California pizza restaurant at that time where you had to wade through screaming kids, ordered your pizza at the counter and basically had to wait on yourself. They wanted an upscale sit-down place with good Chicago style pizza, beer and good food.
With only two years experience of running a Burger King, the men opened the first BJ's Chicago Pizzeria in Santa Ana, CA in 1978. The place became an instant hit. They eventually opened six BJ's in the area and business was booming. For years, they garnered awards for having the best pizza in the Los Angeles area.
In 1991, they turned to their accountants - Jerry Hennessey and Paul Motenko - to see how they could scale back their day-to-day involvement in the business. This intrigued the two accountants who immediately agreed to take over running the six restaurants, even though they had absolutely no experience running a restaurant.
Hennessey and Motenko went on an aggressive campaign to expand BJ's by expanding the number of restaurants, buying up other chains, adding brewpubs to the mix, and making franchises available to buy. Motenko and Hennessey ended up buying out Cunningham and Phillips remaining shares of Chicago Pizza and Brewing, Inc. in 1995. Today, there are 66 BJ's restaurants in 11 states.
The menu at BJ's is widely varied. There's a little bit of everything for everyone. In addition to their pizza, they have a great variety of burgers, sandwiches, pasta, ribs, steaks and other great looking entrees. But the first order of business was getting beer on the table.
BJ's has seven craft beers they brew at their locations. They also have a dozen other beers they brew at selected locations during certain parts of the year. We ended up getting a couple pitchers of their Tatonka Stout and a couple pitchers of their Piranha Pale Ale.
The Piranha is an American-style Pale Ale, short on the hoppiness you get with more of the full pale ales. Still, it had a nice "bite" to it (hence, the "Piranha"), and it was smooth to drink. The guys who had the stout were impressed with it, as well.
So many choices on the menu led to a lot of different things ordered at our tables. A couple of the guys went with the open-faced chili cheese burger - a 2/3 pound burger (that actually looked bigger than 2/3's of a pound) smothered with cheese and chili. You have to eat it with a fork, it's so big.
It looked good, but I went with the Roast Beef Dip - tender roast beef topped with cheese on a French hoagie bun and served with au jus and creamy horseradish sauce to dip in. A couple of the guys went for the pizza. And the others filled in with sandwiches and burgers.
My Roast Beef Dip was OK - nothing special. The burgers, however, were HUGE! My boss ended up getting one of their cheeseburgers and this huge patty between a bun was served to him. He just started laughing. He said, "I'm hungry, but this is sort of ridiculous!"
I got a bite of the pizza, which wasn't all that bad. Compared to some of the better Chicago pizzas I've had I'd say BJ's would hold it's own against them. And I got a bite from one of my colleague's chili cheese burger. It was very good, but - man! Was it a lot of food.
I'm sure they have better items on the menu other than the Roast Beef Dip, but I was in the mood for a sandwich like that rather than a burger - considering that I knew I was going to be heading to Duffy's Cherry Cricket in the coming days for the best burger in the world. But BJ's, overall, was a good experience. The beer wasn't bad, the food was above average, and it had a nice comfy atmosphere. I'd go back if I encountered a BJ's Brewhouse again in my travels.